Seanad Éireann – its origins and conservative role

A referendum on the abolition of Seanad Éireann is taking place on the 4th October. It is   a referendum that is cynically being put forward by the Fine Gael/Labour government to   try to portray themselves as reformers and progressives by calling for the scrapping of a   blatantly elitist institution. Enda Kenny even attacked the ‘political insiders’ who have        never reformed the Seanad for decades. Kenny, however, fails to see that he and the    rest of his Fine Gael party are at the heart of the political establishment and are true    ‘political insiders’, central to how the state is run.

A referendum on the abolition of Seanad Éireann is taking place on the 4th October. It is   a referendum that is cynically being put forward by the Fine Gael/Labour government to   try to portray themselves as reformers and progressives by calling for the scrapping of a   blatantly elitist institution. Enda Kenny even attacked the ‘political insiders’ who have        never reformed the Seanad for decades. Kenny, however, fails to see that he and the    rest of his Fine Gael party are at the heart of the political establishment and are true    ‘political insiders’, central to how the state is run.

Far from introducing the promised “democratic revolution”, this government has  overseen substantial attacks on democratic rights. The policy of austerity dictated by the  financial markets in order to bail out the banks at the expense of working people has  been continued with gusto. The Troika overlords of the IMF, European Commission and European Central Bank have been slavishly followed. Within the government, power has been concentrated in the hands of the Economic Management Council. The government parties were joined by Fianna Fail in pushing through the Fiscal Treaty that transferred yet more power to the European Commission.

Rather than being ‘democratic reformers’, therefore, they have mercilessly attacked democratic rights. The proposal to abolish the Seanad doesn’t change this thrust of their policy, it is simply an opportunistic ploy.

The Socialist Party have been in favour of the abolition of the Seanad, and other undemocratic institutions, such as the presidency and Council of State, long before Kenny and Gilmore opportunistically called this referendum. As socialists we stand for real democracy where there is recall of representatives, all representatives to be on the wages of those they represent and most importantly for real democratic control and ownership over wealth and resources.

Those on the ‘No’ side of the referendum are equally as cynical as the government. The likes of Fianna Fail and the misnamed ‘Democracy Matters’ group have just as little interest in real democratic reform and are equally embedded in the political establishment. However, many working class people, rightly suspicious of the government’s agenda and wanting to punish them for their imposition of austerity, are inclining towards a ‘No’ vote.

The argument that appeals to many people is that the Seanad is a democratic institution in the need of reform, therefore it should not be abolished and it should be made more democratic. We are publishing this article on the history of the Seanad in order to show that the undemocratic nature of the Seanad is not an accidental feature. It purpose from its inception has been and remains a fundamentally undemocratic one. It is not possible for this elitist ‘Upper House’ to become some sort of progressive check on the politicians in the Dail. To hope that it can is to misunderstand the very nature of the Seanad, how and why it was established, how it functions and indeed completely overstates the ability of the Irish political establishment to introduce progressive reforms.

Origins of Seanad Éireann

During the War of Independence the British government passed the Government of Ireland Act in 1920 establishing Northern Ireland as a political entity and also Southern Ireland. Both ‘home rule’ states would have their own parliaments – both with two chambers, a House of Commons and a Senate.

British imperialism was acutely aware of the revolutionary developments in Ireland. Across Ireland there was growing trade union militancy and the British state forces did not have the control of most of the island. There were several workers’ councils formed to run companies and local areas when there were labour disputes, most notably the Limerick Soviet in 1919. The Irish working class was gaining confidence with trade union membership rising rapidly and new militant unions being formed. Across Europe there was a revolutionary wave after the Russian Revolution and also revolutionary movements in Germany, Hungary and other parts of Europe.

The Government of Ireland Act was an attempt to hand one state to unionists in the North and one state to those they could rely on in the South. As James Connolly had predicted partition was designed to be a ‘carnival of reaction’ with two backward capitalist states being formed.

There was a real prospect that a Dáil elected in Southern Ireland could reflect public opinion and have a radical or revolutionary majority or official opposition. This was something the British establishment rightfully feared as it would threaten their interests in Ireland and would also be a point of reference for workers in Britain who were also being radicalised by revolutionary events in Europe.

The Senate of Southern Ireland was formed to be a break on a popularly elected chamber that could possibly be putting forward radical and reforming policies. The Senate would not have been able to fully block radical or revolutionary measures as ultimately mass movements can overcome structures such as parliament, but the Senate would be able to delay and frustrate some parliamentary measures.

The Senate of Southern Ireland was comprised of members of the political, economic, aristocratic and religious establishment. There was the Lord Chancellor, four Roman Catholic bishops, two Church of Ireland bishops, sixteen Lords, eight privy council members and seventeen representatives of commerce, banking, labour, science and the ‘learned professions’ appointed by the Lord Lieutenant. There was to be fourteen representatives of the councils and the Lord Mayors of Dublin and Cork. As it happened the local councils declined to nominate any senators to such a rotten institution. This institution was designed to deny working class representation.

In the North where the British establishment felt more comfortable in maintaining a majority, the Senate was elected by Stormont MPs and generally mirrored the popularly elected chamber.

Second Chambers – more scrutiny?

The Government of Ireland Act created the Irish Senates very much in the tradition of Westminster where there were two Houses of Parliament. The existence of two chambers in Westminster, as in most countries where there are two chambers, was not a conscious design so that there would be a supervisory role or further scrutiny on legislation. This is a lesson from history lost on many of those campaigning for a ‘No’ vote in the upcoming referendum.

Second chambers largely exist due to the need of the ruling class to counteract the danger of a popularly elected chamber. In Westminster the House of Lords was made up of the aristocracy, who generally accepted the supremacy of the House of Commons following the bourgeois revolution that cast aside the feudal system. The House of Lords and the Monarchy remained useful to the capitalist class as it could be a source of authority should legislation or other measures come forward that challenged their class interests.

Similarly in the United States, the US Senate was not formed as a democratic chamber giving equal representation to states, but rather as an institution where slave owning states would have equal representation with the non-slave owning states. It was conceivable that the popular vote in the House of Representatives would be opposed to slavery and other reactionary laws in existence in the southern states. The Senate, which was not popularly elected at the time, would be able to veto any measures that challenged the southern states.

Irish Free State Seanad

With the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922, the upper House was reformed and was renamed Seanad Éireann. The Seanad still played the same role as the Senate of Southern Ireland formed in the Government of Ireland Act. It was a chamber where the Irish establishment would be able to block and frustrate any future radical policy that may have come their way.

Initially half the Seanad was elected by the Dáil and the other half was appointed by the cabinet. However, the Seanad was to be popularly elected with senators having very long 12 year terms with a rotation so there would be an election every three years. However, in the style of the current Seanad and presidency, the nomination process for candidates would be tightly controlled. Only candidates that were vetted by the political establishment could get on the ballot paper. All Seanad candidates had to be either sitting senators or nominated by the Dáil or Seanad. In addition to this controlled nomination procedure, only citizens over 30 years of age had a right to vote!

The first Seanad in the Irish Free State was chaired by Lord Glenavy the former Lord Chief Justice under British rule; it contained seven Lords, one Countess, five baronets and several knights of the realm. This was not a democratic forum and was very much an arm of the establishment not open to working class representation. Given the fact the Cumann na nGaedhal administration was one of the most conservative and reactionary in the state’s history the Seanad did not have to exercise its function off frustrating radical proposals!

As a result, the Irish Free State Seanad was a dysfunctional body. There were numerous reforms and changes to how it was constituted, with none of the changes being more democratic or progressive. In fact the provision for the direct election of senators was removed after the 1925 election which had only a 23% turnout.

The Current Incarnation

In 1936 the Fianna Fáil government of Éamon de Valera abolished the Seanad but re-established it in 1937 under the current constitution. The current Seanad was formed very much in the spirit of the Senate of Southern Ireland and the Irish Free State Seanad.

The Seanad comprises of 6 senators elected by the graduates of Trinity and the National University of Ireland (NUI), 11 nominated by the Taoiseach, and the remaining 43 are elected by councillors, TDs and outgoing senators but in one of the most undemocratic fashions imaginable.

To be a candidate in the Seanad election you must show you have experience in one of five panels – Administration, Agriculture, Culture and Education, Industry and Commerce, or Labour. Candidates must be nominated by either four sitting members of the Oireachtas or by a nominating body. The nominating bodies include some bone fide cultural organisations but are dominated by employers’ organisations such as IBEC, Chambers of Commerce, the Construction Industry Federation, Irish Road Haulage Association, the Irish Exporters Association, the Irish Tourist Industry Confederation, Irish Insurance Federation, Professional Insurance Brokers Association. Even the likes of the National Off-Licence Association and the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association get the right to nominate candidates!

In 2002 Kathy Sinnott, then best known as a disability rights campaigner, had difficulties having her nomination accepted. She was nominated on the Labour panel but the returning officer initially refused her nomination as she was not deemed to have relevant experience. Following some public pressure on the returning officer the nomination was accepted. While she got past the nomination process, she was not accepted by the establishment parties and won only 44 votes!

The Seanad has a restricted electorate and highly restrictive nomination procedure. It is an institution that is elitist and undemocratic. It is a tool of the political establishment and, with the odd exception, has been populated by cronies and hacks of the establishment parties.

University representation

One of the most disgusting aspects of the current Seanad is the representation of university graduates. Within society, university graduates are not a marginalised or discriminated against minority to say the least. While there are many graduates today in regular employment, historically they have been a more privileged section of society. Even today it is a minority of people that attain university degrees. According to the 2011 census 16% of the state’s population have a university degree.

But the Irish political establishment don’t treat all university graduates fairly! The graduates of the University of Limerick, Dublin City University and the Institutes of Technology are not represented. Even among those who do get a vote there’s inequality; the National University of Ireland with over 400,000 graduates get the same number of senators as Trinity College which has approximately 92,000 graduates.

Like in the 1925 election to the Seanad, Irish graduates have been voting with their feet. The turnout in the last election in 2011 was only 34.6% in the NUI and 29% in Trinity. But these low turnout figures are on the basis of a minority who even bother to register. In the NUI there are approximately 10,000 new graduates each year, but only about 700 register annually. Looking through the NUI electoral register, the class breakdown of the electorate becomes clear. On one street in Dublin 4 there are 24 votes in 32 houses. In Tallaght there is an estate with 501 houses and 1 voter. These rotten university seats represent the minority of the minority of the minority. Many of those calling for a ‘No’ vote in this referendum on the basis that the Seanad should be reformed are not calling for an end to privileged graduate representation.

Can this be reformed?

Those advocating the retention of the Seanad are arguing for a reformed chamber. Yet, the question that needs to be asked is: is the Irish political establishment capable of progressive reform? If the current Seanad is reformed then it may be reformed in structure, but will still be in the spirit of the earlier incarnations. The ruling class in Ireland will want to keep it away from universal franchise or direct popular involvement. They will adopt measures such as controlled nomination processes, or they will limit direct elections to a token number of seats. It’s also likely university representation will be kept despite its blatant elitism and abysmally low registration and turnout.

The ruling class are not capable of progressive reforms. Progressive reforms come from mass movements. This is true of measures such as gay rights, women’s rights, and workers’ rights, but also in the arena of parliamentary reform. The only reason women and men with no property have a right to vote in parliamentary elections is because it was fought for by mass movements in the past. If left to their own devices the political establishment would never have introduced the universal suffrage and women and the poor would still be deprived of a vote.

Socialist Democracy

The Socialist Party do not believe that capitalist parliaments are truly democratic institutions. Voters only have a right to choose TDs every five years and TDs are on a pay far and above the wages of the people they are meant to be representing. TDs regularly break election pledges and voters have no way of removing TDs between elections. The Dáil is still not elected on a universal suffrage as adults that are not Irish or UK citizens do not have a vote. This is despite 544,357 non-Irish citizens living in the state.

Within the Dáil the government parties of the day control the agenda and do not even allow amendments to legislation from the opposition if there is a cost implication. There is a massive influence of corporate lobbyists on ministers and members of the Oireachtas. The lobbyists influence is unvetted, unchecked and unaccountable. The influence can be seen in the heart of the Department of the Taoiseach where the Clearing House Group made up of the heads of IFSC companies meet regularly with senior officials and have a major influence of the state’s taxation policy. In July when Socialist Party TD Joe Higgins proposed that an Oireachtas Committee on Global Taxation request the presence of senior executives of the multi-nationals his proposal was voted down by Fine Gael and Labour TDs and senators!

In most countries the role of the head of state is held in reserve and can be used to cut across policies that put the ruling class in danger. Ireland is no different on this front; the president and the Council of State are in reserve for this purpose. The Supreme Court is also an undemocratic body that is appointed by the government and there is no popular input into what guiding legal and philosophical outlooks should be represented in the court. The media also play a central role in how parliamentary democracy operates, this was very evident in the referendum on the Austerity Treaty – the debate was shaped by the media to suit the government’s position.

A socialist democracy would be a complete contrast. First and foremost it must be remembered that a capitalist democracy is based on private ownership of wealth and resources. No government is permitted to take and use the wealth and resources of big business, only relatively light taxation is permitted. A socialist democracy would place the wealth and resources under the control of the working class. The decisions in the key industries would not be taken by the elites in the boardrooms, but would be made democratically by workers and include the wider working class such as pensioners, students, young people and communities generally. Within companies policy and management would be decided democratically by workers not by distant HR managers. Within education parents, teachers and students would set priorities and decide the curriculum.

The economic priorities would be decided democratically at local, national and international level with the aim of providing for people’s needs and not the profits of a few. For example, instead of money and human effort being invested in cosmetics, those skills would be used to for medical research to cure and alleviate disease. Instead of great engineering and scientific knowledge being used in the arms industry it would be used for developing transport, water supply, clean energy and other priorities.

Elected representatives would be on the wages of those they represent and they would be subject to re-call so if they make a decision contrary to the wishes of their electorate they could be immediately removed. With the elimination of duplication and unemployment a socialist society would reduce the working week without loss of pay allowing for increased participation in democracy at all levels. It would be possible for real participation in decisions within industries, within local communities and at a regional, national and international level.

Mass participation and involvement is the best protection against a bureaucratic, undemocratic or abusive government – not second chambers or other institutions. A socialist democracy would abolish elitist undemocratic institutions such as upper Houses, presidencies and monarchies. Other institutions that are used by the capitalist establishment would also be put under a democratic system for example the army, the police and the media.


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